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Alex Steffen: We Can’t Avert Climate Change Without Dense Cities

Alex Steffen goes by the title “planetary futurist,” which makes me realize I should probably spruce up my title to something that makes me sound like I should be wearing a cape, too. What he does is write about sustainable cities, on for seven years and more recently in his book, Carbon Zero.

He just gave a TED talk about how to make cities more sustainable. And while he’s primarily looking at climate impacts, he pretty conclusively dismissed the notion that the problem can be solved with clean fuels.

“We tend to seek simple answers,” he said. And if we assume the problem is fossil fuels, he said, “the answer must be to replace fossil fuels with clean sources of energy. And while we do need clean energy, I would put to you that by looking at climate change as a clean energy generation problem, we’re setting ourselves up not to solve it.”

With a rapidly urbanizing planet and eight billion people projected to live in or near cities by midcentury, Steffen asserts that it may just not be possible to generate enough energy to power all those cities – if those cities continue to look like the ones in the developed world today, anyway. The solution, he said, is density.

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Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Cities for People: The Safe City

Sibelius Park, a housing complex in Copenhagen, has cooperated with the Danish Crime Prevention Council to carefully define private, semiprivate, semipublic and public territories in the complex. Subsequent studies have shown that there is less crime and greater security than in other similar developments. Photos: Jan Gehl

Editor’s note: Streetsblog San Francisco is thrilled to launch a three-part series today by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts are from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press. Visit the Island Press website to find many more great titles by the nation’s leading publisher of books on environmental issues.

Feeling safe is crucial if we hope to have people embrace city space. In general, life and people themselves make the city more inviting and safe in terms of both experienced and perceived security.

In this section we deal with the safe city issue with the goal of ensuring good cities by inviting walking, biking and staying. Our discussion will focus on two important sectors where targeted efforts can satisfy the requirement for safety in city space: traffic safety and crime prevention.

Throughout the entire period of car encroachment, cities have tried to remove bicycle traffic from their streets. The risk of accident to pedestrians and bicyclists has been great throughout the rise in car traffic, and the fear of accident even greater.

Many European countries and North America experienced the car invasion early on and have watched city quality deteriorate year by year. There have been numerous counter reactions and an incipient development of new traffic planning principles in response. In other countries whose economies have developed more slowly and modestly, cars have only begun to invade cities more recently. In every case the result is a dramatic worsening of conditions for pedestrians and bicycle traffic.

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Searching for Market Street’s True Identity

San Franciscans are dreaming big as Market Street’s transformation approaches in 2015, when the city’s most important street is scheduled to be redesigned and repaved. City planners are engaging with citizens to answer a century-old question: How can we make Market Street the glorious thoroughfare that it needs to be?

Better Market Street, a collaborative project of five city agencies, has held public meetings and webinars the past two weeks to field input from people who walk, bike, ride transit, and even drive along the street. The effort is being informed by a large swath of research brought to the table by city staffers, which is now available on the Better Market Street website.

“Market Street is San Francisco’s civic backbone, connecting water to hills, businesses to neighborhoods, cultural centers to recreational opportunities,” the site’s about page states. “The movement of people and goods, from the very earliest times, has dominated its design and use. But Market Street needs to be more than a transportation route. It needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space and many San Franciscans feel it falls far short of this ideal.”

Block-by-block, hour-by-hour data documenting the urban environment were collected by researchers to help inform input from attendees at recent workshops. Researchers note everything from fluctuations in pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the street, to the conditions plaguing its extremely high volume of transit trips, to the placement of trees and how the usage of plazas is impacted by the sun and wind. Comparisons and best practices from major streets abroad help put it all in perspective.

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Transit: The Greenest Technology

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Editor’s note: This concludes our 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.”  Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form. We’ll choose the winners tomorrow.

The most important community-scale system dependent on urbanism is transit. It has long been known that density and transit ridership are linked, but it goes much deeper than that. The key to viable transit systems is not just density but walkability and mixed use—true urban places. If people cannot walk the quarter mile to or from a station, chances are they will not use the transit. Conversely, if they can easily run errands and coordinate trips on the way to or from a station, they are more likely to use transit. European data show that the percentage of walk or bike trips always exceeds that of transit trips—often by more than two to one.27 In fact, walking by itself constitutes 30 percent of all trips in Great Britain (versus 9 percent transit), and in Sweden walk/bike trips are 34 percent of the total (versus 11 percent transit). 28 Transit supports and extends the pedestrian environment; transit is pedestrian dependent, not the other way around. The primary alternative to the car and all of its environmental costs is the pedestrian environment and the walkable urbanism that supports transit.

A good transit system has many layers, from local buses to bus rapid transit and streetcars, from light rail to subways and commuter trains. They all feed into and reinforce one another, and they all depend on walkable urbanism at the origin and destination. The quality of the interface from walking to transit, and from one form of transit to the other, is central to displacing car trips and is the greenest technology that urbanism provides.

The relationship among transit, urbanism, travel behavior, and carbon emissions is complex but can be summarized with one key quantifiable metric, vehicle miles traveled (VMT)—effectively, the amount we drive. VMT is determined by the number and distance of trips we take, and our “mode split”—the percentage of trips taken by various transportation modes such as walk, bike, car, carpool, or transit. Each household, depending on its location, income, and size, has an average VMT per year, which when combined with various auto technologies will generate its travel carbon footprint.

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Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change: Green Technology

Tassafaronga Village in Oakland features buildings "designed to the highest level of green standard...incorporating a wide range of complementary green strategies including solar power for on-site generation of electricity and hot water." Image: Brian Rose from David Baker + Partners Architects

Editor’s note: This week, we continue our 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number four. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.

I was part of the passive solar architectural movement in the 1970s. Its core idea was to provide energy for buildings in the most direct, elegant way. We had disdain for complicated “active solar” systems, with their complex engineering, maintenance, and costs. The passive way was first to reduce the demands by building tight, well insulated structures, flooded with natural light, and then to let the sun’s radiation or the cool night air work with the buildings’ form to provide thermal comfort. The same approach needs to be taken in relation to the climate change challenge: we need to find the simple, elegant solutions that are based on conservation before we introduce complex technology, even if it is green.

We need to focus, ironically, on ends, not means. For example, in passive solar buildings, focusing on the end goal (thermal comfort) rather than the means (heating air) changed the design approach dramatically. It turns out that human comfort has more to do with surrounding surface temperatures than with air temperature in a building, so massive walls that absorb and store the sun’s gentle heat also provide a more comfortable environment without all the hot air. Or, if lighting is the goal, electricity and bulbs are just one potential means; a building that welcomes daylight is the simple, elegant solution—even better than a complex system of wind farms generating green electrons for efficient fixtures. Likewise, the goal of transportation is access, not movement or mobility per se; movement is a means, not the end. So, bringing destinations closer together is a simpler, more elegant solution than assembling a new fleet of electric cars and the acres of solar collectors needed to power them. Call it “passive urbanism.”

Once demands are reduced by passive urbanism, the next step is to add technology. Green urbanism is what you get when you combine the best of traditional urbanism with renewable energy sources, advanced conservation techniques, new green technologies, and integrated services and utilities. All the inherent benefits of urbanism can be amplified by a new generation of ecological design, smart grids, climate-responsive buildings, low-carbon or electric cars, and next generation transit systems.

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Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change: Urbanism Expanded

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Editor’s note: This week, we continue our 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number three. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.

For many people, urban is a bad word that implies crime, congestion, poverty, and crowding. For them, it represents an environment that moves people away from a healthy connection with nature and the land. Its stereotype is the American ghetto, a crime-ridden concrete jungle that simultaneously destroys land, community, and human potential. The reaction to this stereotype has been a middle-class retreat into the closeted world of single-family lots and gated subdivisions in the suburbs. As a result, much of the last half century’s planning has been directed toward depopulating cities, whether through the satellite towns of Europe or the suburbs of America.

But, for many others, the word urban represents economic opportunity, culture, vitality, innovation, and community. This positive reading is now manifest in the revitalized centers of many of our historic cities. In these core areas, the public domain—with its parks, walkable streets, commercial centers, arts, and institutions—is once again becoming rich and vibrant, valued and desirable. There is new life in many city centers and their public places, from cafés and plazas to urban parks and museums—ultimately drawing people back to the city.

In fact, since 2000, many of our major cities have increased their share of new home construction while their region’s suburbs have declined. For example, in 2008, Portland issued 38 percent of all the building permits within its region, compared to an average of 9 percent in the early 1990s; Denver accounted for 32 percent, up from 5 percent; and Sacramento accounted for 27 percent, up from 9 percent. There is an even stronger trend toward urban redevelopment in the largest metropolitan regions. New York City accounted for 63 percent of the building permits issued within its region. By comparison, the city averaged about 15 percent of regional building permits during the early 1990s. Similarly, Chicago now accounts for 45 percent of the building permits within its region, up from just 7 percent in the early 1990s.13 This represents a dramatic turnaround as cities regain their roles as centers of innovation, social mobility, artistic creativity, and economic opportunity.

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Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change: Vision California

A future San Jose Diridon Station with high-speed rail. Image: CHSRA

A future San Jose Diridon Station with high-speed rail. Image: CHSRA

Editor’s note: This week and next, we’re presenting a 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number two. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.

California’s effort to implement its new greenhouse gas reduction laws has provided a comprehensive look at urbanism and its potential in relation to a range of conservation and clean energy policies. The Vision California study, developed for the California High Speed Rail Authority and the California Strategic Growth Council, measured the results of several statewide land use futures coupled with conservation policies through the year 2050.5 The results make concrete the choices before us, the feedback loops, and the scale of both benefits and costs.

California is projected to grow by 7 million new households and 20 million people, to a population of nearly 60 million, by 2050.6 It is currently the eighth-largest economy in the world and therefore provides an important model of what is possible. The study compared a “Trend” future dominated by the state’s now typical low-density suburban growth and conservative conservation policies to a “Green Urban” alternative. This Green Urban alternative assumed that 35 percent of growth would be urban infill; 55 percent would be formed from a more compact, mixed-use, and walkable form of suburban expansion; and only 10 percent would be standard low-density development. In addition, the Green Urban alternative would push the auto fleet to an average 55 miles per gallon (MPG), its fuel would contain one third less carbon, and all new buildings would be 80 percent more efficient than today’s norm. It does not represent a green utopia, but it is heading in that direction. The results of this comparison highlight just how much is at stake and what the costs will be.

Remarkably, the quantity of land needed to accommodate the next two generations was reduced 67 percent by the Green Urban scenario, from more than 5,600 square miles in the Trend future to only 1,850 square miles. By comparison, the state’s current developed area is 5,300 square miles.7 This difference would save vast areas (up to 900 square miles) of farmland in the Central Valley along with key open space and habitat in the coastal regions of the state. The more compact future means smaller yards to irrigate and fewer parking lots to landscape, saving an average of 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year—enough to fill the San Francisco Bay annually or to irrigate 5 million acres of farmland.8 Less developed land also translates to fewer miles of infrastructure to build and maintain. The annual savings would be around $194 billion for the state, or $24,300 for each new household—not including the costs of ongoing maintenance. In addition, the Trend future would cost more in police and fire services as coverage areas increase.

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Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Image © Peter Calthorpe & Marianna Leuschel

Editor’s note: Today we are very pleased to begin a five-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” Keep reading this week and next to learn how you can win a copy of the book from Island Press.

I take as a given that climate change is an imminent threat and potentially catastrophic—the science is now clear that we are day by day contributing to our own demise. In addition, I believe that an increase in fuel costs due to declining oil reserves is also inevitable. The combination of these two global threats presents an economic and environmental challenge of unparalleled proportions—and, lacking a response, the potential for dire consequences. These challenges will in turn bring into urgent focus the way our buildings, towns, cities, and regions shape our lives and our environmental footprint. Beyond a transition to clean energy sources, I believe that urbanism—compact, diverse, and walkable communities—will play a central role in addressing these twin threats. In fact, responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

Many deny either the timing or the reality of these challenges. They argue that global demand for oil will not outstrip production and that climate change is overstated, nonexistent, or somehow not related to our actions. Setting aside such debates, my book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change,” accepts the premise that both climate change and peak oil are pressing realities that need aggressive solutions.

Responding to climate change and our coming energy challenge without a more sustainable form of urbanism will be impossible.

The two challenges are deeply linked. The science tells us that if we are to arrest climate change, our goal for carbon emissions should be just 20 percent of our 1990 level by 2050. That, combined with a projected U.S. population increase of 130 million people,1 means each person in 2050 would need to be emitting on average just 12 percent of his or her current greenhouse gases (GHG)—what I will call here the “12% Solution.”2 If we can achieve the 12% Solution to offset climate change, we will simultaneously reduce our fossil-fuel dependence and demonstrate a sustainable model of prosperity. Such a low-carbon future will inherently reduce oil demands at rates that will allow a smoother transition to alternative fuels—and the next economy.

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Phelan Bus Loop Project, First in Balboa Area Plan, Gets Federal Funding

Picture_5.pngA reconfigured Phelan Bus Loop. Graphic: SF Planning Department
A proposal to reconfigure the Phelan Bus Loop as part of the Balboa Park Station Area Plan received a major boost today with the announcement that the Federal Transit Administration has awarded the SFMTA more than $6.8 million for the project.

In a statement, the FTA said the project "paves the way for landscaped open space, new retail space, and new affordable housing, all next to public transportation, and within walking distance of both a major transit hub and San Francisco City College, one of the nation’s largest educational institutions."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also issued a statement praising the project and the federal funding. "Today's announcement highlights San Francisco's continued leadership in the realm of livable communities and transit-oriented development. It will increase public transportation options, while reducing congestion and our dependence on foreign oil."

John Katz, the project manager for the SFMTA, said it will probably take several months before the funding is in hand, but the reconfiguration would be the first major public project under the Balboa plan, and under a best case scenario, would be on target to begin construction a year from now.

"It's great news for the community in San Francisco. This is a project that has been worked on, at least in concept, for the last 7 or 8 years and it looks like it's going to become a reality now," said Katz. "This project is really a catalyst for a lot of long-needed community improvements." 


Traffic Engineer Jack Fleck Looks Back at 25 Years of Shaping SF Streets

Jack_Fleck_1.jpgJack Fleck, who retired yesterday after 25 years with the SFMTA, has been pondering the city's streets from his 7th floor office above Van Ness and Market Streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on the past, present and future of traffic engineering in San Francisco. 

Jack Lucero Fleck remembers his teenage years as a sputnik, the kind of kid who was as "nutty as a slide rule," loved math and science, and knew he was headed in that direction. It was the summer of 1965, and living in Peoria, Illinois, the same town where US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood grew up, Fleck couldn't quite peg what he wanted to do in life. And then there were the Watts riots.

"I got kind of interested in, 'well, what caused that? Why were people burning down their neighborhood?'," Fleck, 62, explained during a recent interview. "I decided I would go into civil engineering because I liked to do math and science and engineering and I would combine it with city planning to make cities better places to live, so people wouldn't want to burn them down."

For the last 25 years, Fleck, who retired yesterday from his job as San Francisco's top traffic engineer, has had a hand in almost every major transportation project in San Francisco, from the demolition and boulevard replacement of the Embarcadero and Central Freeways, to helping in the design of the T-Third line and Central Subway, to crafting a controversial proposal to remove the bike lane at Market and Octavia Streets.

He has sometimes been the bane of transit advocates for defending post-World War II traffic engineering orthodoxy favoring one-way street networks, such as those that roar through neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and SoMa. While some advocates have been working to dismantle some of the one-way arterials, Fleck, who became lead traffic engineer in 2004, is a firm believer in them. Still, those advocates and transportation professionals who have worked with Fleck (none we contacted would go on the record with their criticisms) say he has been a true professional and easy to work with.

"His views are very progressive and he's very environmentally conscious," said Bond Yee, the interim Director of Sustainable Streets at the SFMTA who has been at the agency four years longer than Fleck. "He epitomizes what the new generation of transportation professionals is becoming. He's a little bit ahead of his time."